Mother petitions for playground safety, telling school board her first-grader was attacked by classmate

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair
Beyond the playground: Supervisors watching children play at recess outside Westmere Elementary School did not see Jennifer Romano’s child being violently attacked on the open field just beyond the playground, Romano told the board of education on July 5, when she presented them with what she calls “free-to-low-cost” steps to improve playground supervision.

GUILDERLAND — Jennifer Romano told Guilderland’s school board on July 5 that her first-grade child was attacked by a classmate on the playground at Westmere Elementary School. She called it “a violent attack of a sexual nature” and said that it went on for “several minutes” and was not witnessed by any adults who were supervising at the time.

The attack occurred, Romano said, on an open and highly visible field next to the playground and was observed by at least one child that she knows of.  Romano told The Enterprise it happened on May 10 and that the child who saw it was “shocked” and “ran off.”

The incident has made Romano — who has a master’s degree in human resources and information systems, with a specialty in advising organizations on how to become more efficient — into an advocate for school playground safety at Guilderland. She presented the board with a petition signed by more than 175 Guilderland residents, calling for safety and security measures.

Superintendent Marie Wiles confirmed that the district “did have an incident on the playground that was investigated and was handled through our building principal and parents and classroom teacher and everyone who was involved with part of the investigation and the plan for next steps with respect to that particular incident.” Beyond that, she said, she couldn’t talk about specifics.

Asked, hypothetically, if the attacker himself were a victim of abuse, would the school offer him help as well, Wiles, said, “Any time there’s an incident on school property that involves our students, I think you can be very confident that we investigate fully and we take into consideration every single individual who is connected with it and always want to err on the side of doing what’s in the best interest for all of our students.”

Wiles continued, “So if something happens on our school property we’re going to be diligent in making sure we understand what happened and do everything in our power to make sure everyone is healthy, happy, and in a good place.”

Asked if the incident suggested to her that the perpetrator might be a victim of sexual abuse, Dr. Elizabeth J. Letourneau, director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, said no and explained that, first of all, she would not classify an attack carried out by a child that young as a sexual attack, but instead would classify it more generally, as aggressive.

“Not to say that the child didn’t cause harm, possibly,” Letourneau said, “but just to say that the intent was unlikely to have been sexual gratification.” It’s unlikely that a child that young “has any idea or understands sexuality on that level,” she said.

Letourneau would “absolutely” regard the behavior as a red flag suggesting that the child does need help. She would want to “figure out what might be in the background that would result in behavior like that.”

Some possible causes could include, she said, exposure to violence, whether physical or sexual, toward a child’s caregivers; exposure to developmentally inappropriate sexual material, like looking at pornography at a very early age (“And 6 or 7 is very early”); and exposure to adult sexual behavior.

Even if a child is acting out things that have happened to him or her, or imitating behavior he or she has seen other people do, the idea that he or she is connecting these behaviors with sexual gratification at the age of 6 is unrealistic, she said.

 

— Photo from Jennifer Romano
Simple solution: The handout parent Jennifer Romano gave the school board on July 5 included this photo of the only camera currently trained on the playground area, which is partially obstructed by leafy branches. Her suggestion of a low-cost solution: Trim the branches.

 

But engaging in behavior that harmed someone else or seemed out of control would definitely be cause for concern, she said.

The incident made Romano begin to think about what more can be done to improve playground safety, she told The Enterprise. “If you couldn’t protect my child from a 7-year-old, how are you going to protect my child from an adult coming onto the playground intending harm?” she asked.

Romano gave the board a petition calling for “a new safety and security plan … to keep our children physically and emotionally safe during recess.” A new plan, she said, should include better supervision on the Westmere playground and more outdoor security cameras at the school.

If recess supervisors are clustered together with their backs to the children, talking to each other, they are distracted, Romano told the board. “They may not notice a child wandering into the adjacent woods or parking lots. They may not see a stranger approaching the play yard,” she continued.

If supervisors stay gathered in one area, they are not maximizing their ability to supervise different areas of the large play area behind the school, she said at the meeting.

Researchers say that playgrounds are one of the prime spots where bullying takes place at school, along with other locations such as school hallways, lunch rooms, and buses that are less closely supervised than the classroom.

Romano gave copies to each board member of playground-safety and supervision-training guidelines that she said would involve “no real cost to implement” and that would help mitigate “injuries and incidents of harassment, bullying, and violence that are happening on our playgrounds.”

She told the board that she believes there should not be any blind spots on school grounds, especially where children are playing, or entering or leaving the building.

A developer is in the process of constructing a luxury-apartment complex that will border the length of the Westmere school property’s back edge, on the other side of the woods where the children play, Romano told the board. She asked what measures — whether fencing, security cameras, or guards — the developer will take to protect the children.

Vincent M. Wolanin, chairman and founder of Wolanin Companies, told The Enterprise that the 1700 Residences South development that the company is building adjacent to the school is “a 100 percent fenced and gated community” and will stay that way during and after construction. He said that the entire property is surrounded by a six-foot-tall chain-link fence. Construction has begun and the goal is to have residents start moving in in the summer of 2018, Wolanin said.

 

Supervision

According to the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 200,000 children visit hospital emergency rooms each year for playground injuries, and inadequate supervision contributes to these injuries.

Romano believes the district’s approach to playground supervision needs to become more formalized.

She provided board members with playground-supervisor training guidelines from Peaceful Playgrounds, a national program that promotes healthy and safe play.

The guidelines advocate dividing up a playground into supervision zones, such as “grass,” “play structures,” or “blacktop areas,” and having a minimum of one adult per zone. Each supervisor should be alert, walk around the area rather than stand still, and visually scan constantly, the guidelines say. Supervisors should not be organizing games and they should put off having conversations with other adults until after recess, according to the guidelines.

Supervisors should make eye contact when they believe that behavior problems are brewing, move close to students when a confrontation seems likely, give verbal warnings, be firm in enforcing rules, and step in to stop any inappropriate behavior, the guidelines say, and any bullying incidents should be reported to administrators.  

Playground supervisors could wear whistles around their necks and could carry walkie-talkies that would allow them to communicate with office staff if necessary, Romano wrote in the materials she gave board members; she suggested that some of these items could perhaps be donated by police or fire departments.

Security cameras

Romano told the board that there should be more cameras at the elementary schools — Guilderland has five — and more signs stating that there are cameras. As cars drive in, a camera should capture an image of the license plate and the driver, she said, while a sign alerts drivers to the presence of cameras at school.

There are just three outdoor cameras at Westmere Elementary, confirmed Clifford Nooney, the district’s superintendent of buildings and grounds. One is trained on the front parking lot, one is focused on the bus loop, and the other is at the back of the school, facing the playground.

But as Romano showed in her presentation to the board, leafy tree branches partially block the view of the camera that faces the playground. Her handout suggests a low-cost, easy solution: trim the branches. She also noted that there are no cameras on either side of the school and that one camera may not be enough to capture the large area behind the school.

Romano also told the board that all cameras should be capable of being patched in to police in an emergency, so police can see what is happening at school.

Nooney said, “I think when it comes to safety and security, it’s ever-evolving.”

There are currently 223 cameras in use across all of the district’s seven schools; that number includes transportation and maintenance as well,  he said.

All of them cameras can be patched in to the police, Nooney said. They all run on the same software, he said, even though some are older and require a converter.

Nooney noted that a little over a year ago he suggested replacing 31 of the district’s oldest cameras.

During the last couple of capital projects, Nooney said, he has worked directly with building-level administrators to decide where to place cameras to get the best views.

The only two playgrounds that do not currently have a camera view on them, he said, are a small kindergarten playground at Guilderland Elementary — “like a small courtyard” — and an older playground behind Lynnwood Elementary that is set among and partially hidden by trees. “We have a camera that looks that direction, but because of the woods you can’t actually see the playground,” he said.

He is not opposed to additional cameras, Nooney said, but feels “it would be a conversation for our board and our community.”

“I don’t know if it’s ever going to be possible to cover everything,” he said.

Smart Schools

Wiles told The Enterprise this week that she learned just last Friday that the district’s Smart Schools Bond Act project has “finally” been approved, and the district will be able to start implementing some of its planned infrastructural and technological improvements.

“We are looking to add additional cameras to the outside areas of all of our buildings,” Wiles said. “So we’ll be able to go forward with adding some of those cameras.”

In her presentation to the board, Romano mentioned Smart Schools, asking how much of the $60,000 in funds that Guilderland receives will be directed to the district’s elementary schools. If elementary-school parents believe that they need more security, Romano asked if they would be allowed to fundraise to meet the costs of hiring more playground aids or installing more cameras.

“Younger children need any safety and security measures the high school has, just as much if not more, given that younger children cannot run, hide, or fight back as well as older students,” she wrote in an email to The Enterprise.

Romano would like to see a parent representative from each school allowed to join the district’s security committee, which is currently comprised of administrators. Parents, she said this week, know “the unique needs of each school.”

District’s plans

Currently, elementary classroom teachers go out onto the playground to supervise the children at recess, Wiles said. Since an average class size is from the low to mid-20s, “that’s roughly the number of youngsters that a single individual would need to supervise at any given time,” she said.

If the classroom happens to have a teaching assistant, or if a student is assigned a one-to-one aid, that person might go outside with the class, Wiles said. But for the most part, she said, the ratio is one adult per class of students.

Wiles said that the district-wide safety committee met in late May or early June to formalize some of the strategies for supervision and use of equipment. “One of the things we’re going to do,” she said, “is look at our playground areas in each of the five [elementary-school] buildings and designate vantage points that maximize visibility for both the equipment and the playing fields, the various features of each of the playgrounds.”

Wiles continued, referring to the different elementary-school playgrounds, “They’re all different, and so if you are one classroom teacher out there with your class, is there one area that makes the most sense to stand, to actually see as much of the geography as possible? That’s something we’re talking about, and actually doing some of that training, where we actually take our staff out on the playground and look at that.”

Wiles agreed that good supervision is the most important tool, since it can prevent incidents, while cameras, for the most part, only record them.

Guilderland is currently facing a suit after a second-grader fell from a zipline meant for older students at Pine Bush Elementary School. The lawsuit, filed on May 9 with the United States District Court, Northern District of New York, names both the child’s teacher — Timothy Horan, who has since retired and been elected to the school board — and the school district, both of which were “deliberately indifferent” to the child’s medical needs, it says, and “denied her access” to medical care. She had broken both of her wrists in the fall.

For the time being, Wiles said, the district has not looked closely at the idea of hiring more staff or bringing in parent volunteers, although those are steps it might choose to take in the future. As a first step, “Let’s maximize what we already do, and think about the staff we have available, and how best to supervise using that staff,” she said. “And then, if we find that it’s still insufficient, we could potentially look at other options.”

She is amenable to the idea of more signs about cameras, she said. “I don’t have any problem with communicating with people who come onto our property about who we are — the fact that we are a school property, a drug-free zone, and, by the way, we do use security cameras.”

Mother’s view

Romano said the incident has been formally acknowledged as an act of harassment under the state’s Dignity for All Students Act and will also be reported to the State Education Department as a VADIR (Violent and Disruptive Incident Reporting) violent and disruptive incident.

Initially, her child expressed some embarrassment, anger, and fear, Romano said. At Romano’s request, the school added an extra teacher to stop any contact between the two students, since the school told her that it would be too disruptive to move either child out of the classroom, she said. Administrators also had her child speak with the school counselor, although Romano said she was unsure if “anything came from those meetings specific to the incident.”

Romano has tried to emphasize to her child that “it wasn’t our child’s fault and that anyone who does that to you is not a friend (even though admin made them apologize, or they seem remorseful, or you have to remain in class together until the year ended).”

Outside counseling has not seemed necessary for now, Romano said, “as our child is a very happy kiddo.” But she will continue to monitor the need for therapy, so as to “keep the child happy.”

The family is “looking forward to second grade,” Romano said.

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